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‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing ****

‘What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.’

9781782111238Laing is one of the authors whom I wanted to focus upon reading during 2017.  The Lonely City is the book of hers which I’ve heard the most about, so it seemed a good choice with which to begin.  The entirety of the essay collection, woven around the central theme of loneliness at play within the city, is beautifully written.

I’m not personally somebody who suffers with loneliness, but having recently moved to the centre of a big city, I’m conscious that mixing with neighbours and the like is something which seems rare.  It’s astounding that people can be so lonely within the bustle of the city, when so many people live and work close by, but I have a fuller understanding of the reasons which drive one to feel alone since reading this.

Well-measured, and with a series of great examples given, Laing, who focuses upon a lot of famous people as well as her own story within New York City, is rather enlightening upon the subject.  In taking into account art, the homeless, and feeling acutely alone whilst using the Internet, for instance, Laing really makes her readers think, and reconsider those around them.

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An Update: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

At the end of 2016, I reread Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; I thought it would be an interesting idea to present my previous review, which probably dates from around 2013, along with my current thoughts.

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released. 9781860497926

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes <i>Girl, Interrupted</i> a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

——-

Update:

I reread Girl, Interrupted for my Goodreads book group in December 2016.  The work was far more fragmented than I remembered, and at times, Kaysen’s own condition and diagnosis felt a little overshadowed by those she was living in close confinement with.  This approach, and her choice to use others in her own journey of mental illness, was fascinating.  The scenes which she presents are almost disjointed on the face of it, but one soon gets the impression that the piece has been well structured.  The introspective sections which discussed Kaysen’s own health, and her place within the world, were those which I found of the most interest.

The historical and social context which Kaysen presents, from the Vietnam War to Kennedy’s assassination, firmly anchors the whole within the mid- to late-1960s.  What is surprising about the piece is both how different treatment appears to be in the twenty-first century, and the similarities which we can still recognise within our own societal treatment of the mentally unwell.  Scotland, for instance, still uses electroshock therapy, which sounds old-fashioned even in Kaysen’s account.  The smoke and mirrors which often surrounded which treatments were being given was surprising to me; there appears to be very little honesty with the patients, and little understanding of their own conditions at times.  The gender distinctions here are fascinating – for instance, musings of experiences which have occurred to Kaysen within the workplace – particularly from a standpoint almost fifty years in the future; again, similarities can be recognised within our own global society.  Upon my second reading, the camaraderie of those around Kaysen surprised me too; rather than being separated, the patients are encouraged to be together, from their leisure time down to their rooming.

Kaysen’s telling of her story is brave and heartfelt, and the insight which she gives into the institution of McLean and its treatments is fascinating.  She is essentially laying herself bare for the world to see.  I was left wondering whether any of the information which she relays has been partially or fully fictionalised, and whether the names of patients and nurses were changed due to anonymity.  This does not matter on the whole, I suppose – we must remember that I absolutely adored James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the furore surrounding its fictionalised scenes didn’t bother me at all – but I do like to think of Girl, Interrupted as a brutally honest account.  It has been highly well-styled, and intelligently written.  The advantage of hindsight, and her discovery of her patient notes detailing her Borderline Personality Disorder twenty-five years after she was released, are startling, and demonstrate how much treatments had moved on just in that relatively short space of time.  Kaysen’s ability to talk in a relatively removed and understanding way about her experience was a fantastic asset to the whole, and definitely one of the strengths of the whole piece for me.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: Elizabeth McCracken and Margaret Atwood

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****

‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’

9780316027663I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year.  McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors.  She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose.  This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding.  The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth.  An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.

 

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****

‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’ 9781844080823

I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved.  I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction.  I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.

Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me.  It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford.  Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written.  The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.

 

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The Book Trail: From The Lonely City to Lions

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with an incredibly thoughtful and well-written essay collection, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.  As always, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list of fantastically intriguing tomes.

1. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
28693032What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.

 

2. The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin 24000166
When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.  The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey—but it’s also much, much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations in its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free from their origins and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependant on and dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution and fostering myth in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, incisive literary analysis, and personal experience into a rich meditation on the complicated interactions of place, personality, and society that can make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.  Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from the nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide how to live their life?

 

3. The Bad Mother by Marguerite Andersen
27969969Translated from the award-winning French novel La mauvaise mère, prolific author Marguerite Andersen fictionalizes the important moments of her life resulting in this unflinching account of her relationship with her three children and her years spent following her caprices and lovers, trying to regain the agency she lost when she became a mother.  Born in Germany, Marguerite was just into her twenties when she moved to Tunisia with her French lover. She thought she was choosing a life of adventure and freedom, but what she got was children and a marriage that quickly became abusive. Constrained by the minutiae of everyday life, Marguerite longs for the agency to make her own choices. Eventually she flees, leaving her children behind for a year and a half.  As the world labels her a wife, a mother, and eventually a bad mother, Marguerite wrestles with her own definition of personhood. Can you love your children and want your own life at the same time?  A half-century later, this fictionalized account of Andersen’s life is written with brutal honesty, in spare, pithy, and often poetic prose, as she expresses her own conflicted feelings concerning a difficult time and the impact it had on her sense of self. Andersen confronts the large and small choices that she made—the times she stayed and the times she didn’t—all the while asking, “What kind of mother am I?”

 

4. Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach 394346
Faced with a rare opportunity to experiment with solitude, Doris Grumbach decided to live in her coastal Maine home without speaking to anyone for fifty days. The result is a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.

 

5. Mad in Pursuit by Violette Leduc
99088‘In the second remarkable volume of her life story, Mad In Pursuit, the war is finally over. A new generation of writers has appeared in Paris, among them Camus, Genet, Startre, and Cocteau, and every day, they can be seen writing at the marble-topped of the Cafe de Flore. Already in her thirties. Leduc burns with hero-worship and an obsession to become a celebrated writer herself. When she finds a mentor in none other than Simone de Beauvoir, she is pulled into the center of Parisian literary life — “a beehive gone mad. “In the no-holds-barred style that made her a legend, Leduc paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant minds around her — and the dark passions and insecurities that drove her to write.

 

6. Genet by Edmund White 53011
Bastard, thief, prostitute, jailbird, Jean Genet was one of French literature’s sacred monsters. in works from Our Lady of the Flowers to The Screens, he created a scandalous personal mythology while savaging the conventions of his society. His career was a series of calculated shocks marked by feuds, rootlessness, and the embrace of unpopular causes and outcast peoples. Now this most enigmatic of writers has found his ideal biographer in novelist Edmund White, whose eloquent and often poignant chronicle does justice to the unruly narrative of Genet’s life even as it maps the various worlds in which he lived and the perverse landscape of his imagination.

 

7. Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Toibin
43705Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading.  Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn’t know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression.  This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires — his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.

 

8. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties by Christopher Isherwood
In 1938 the legendary Hogarth Press published the first of Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical writings, Lions and Shadows. The book evokes the atmosphere of Cambridge as Isherwood knew it and describes his life as a tutor, a medical student, and a struggling writer. Above all, Lions and Shadows is a captivating account of a young novelist’s development in the literary culture of 1920s Cambridge and London and of his experiences as he forged lifelong friendships with his peers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Edward Upward.

 

Which of these books whets your appetite the most?  Have you read any of them?

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‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ by Mara Wilson *****

‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set ofMelrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.’

9780143128229Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? was one of my most anticipated Christmas reads.  Wilson is just wonderful; I found myself wanting to be best friends with her when I saw her in both Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street as a small child, and was a little sad when I noticed years later that she seemed to have faded from the limelight.

Wilson is a witty and original writer, and comes across just as I thought it would.  Her narrative voice is engaging, and this renders the book rather difficult to put down from the very beginning.  Wilson is candid about her childhood struggles with continued acting and her mother’s death from cancer; she is intelligent, warm, and eye-opening in many respects.  Her letter to Matilda is insightful and almost tear-inducing.  Where Am I Now? is a poignant and meaningful memoir, and I for one cannot wait to see what she turns her hand to next.

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‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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‘The Sins of Society’ by Ouida ****

‘Ouida had one of the most powerful radical conservative voices of the late-nineteenth century.  Known primarily as a colourful and eccentric novelist, she embodied in her forthright essays a much more piercing energy and single-minded verve’.  So states the blurb of Ouida’s The Sins of Society, an essay collection published by Michael Walmer.  Most of the ten essays collected in the volume were published in ‘serious’ journals such as the Pall Mall Magazine and the Fortnightly Review during the early 1890s, and are inspired by such things as history, art, and architecture.

Ouida, whilst relatively neglected in today’s literary world, published over forty novels, as well as stories, essays, and children’s books.  From the very outset of the essays within this collection, she holds no bounds; the first, and titular, piece has the following in its opening paragraph: ‘There are no butterflies in this fast, furious and fussy age.  They all died with the eighteenth century, or if a few still lingered on into this, they perished forever with the dandies…  The dominant classes of the present day have nothing in the least degree akin to the butterflies, would to Heaven that they had!  Their pleasure should be more elegant, their example more artistic, their idleness more picturesque than these are now.’ 9780994430694

Her writing is a wonderful balance of measured and descriptive throughout, and it is quite beautiful in places.  She discusses modern society and all of its pitfalls in all of its variations – the environment in which one lives, luxury, the perils of a rushed life, education, drinking and gambling, procreation, conscription, religion, and gardens, amongst other elements.  There is also a great emphasis placed upon travel writing here, much of it penned in Italy.  Despite the historical provenance of these essays, much of what Ouida discusses is relevant to today, as many parallels can be drawn between our world and hers.  So little has really changed since Ouida’s day; we hold the same core global values on the whole, and the ways in which we seek to represent ourselves does not appear to have greatly moved on in the intervening century.

Perhaps most fitting, particularly where 2016 is concerned. is this: ‘Mob rule is rising everywhere in a muddy ocean which will outspread into a muddy plain wherein all loveliness and eminence will be alike submerged’.  The Sins of Society is relatively slim in size, but it is so packed full of ideas that it soon becomes an incredibly rich essay collection.  Ouida’s voice is shrewd and intelligent, and she provokes many thoughts within the mind of the reader.  She discusses a wealth of topics in a well-informed manner, and this collection is sure to delight the politically and societally aware.

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